On this date in 1941, the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service executed an unprovoked and undeclared surprise attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. 2,335 servicemen died in the shameful assault, as well as 68 civilians. Four American battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers, and a handful of other ships were sunk. The next day, President Roosevelt delivered his iconic Infamy Speech and Congress voted to officially declare war on Japan.
Of course, the attack itself is not what makes the day live in infamy. Surprise attacks are a natural part of war. Rather, it is the cowardly nature of the attack that draws such universal disgust. In Roosevelt’s famous speech, he stated, “the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.” Roosevelt’s point is that Japan violated the internationally recognized rules of war by engaging in this surprise attack before making a formal declaration of war. Instead, Japan utilized cowardly deception to kill thousands of Americans. It’s no wonder this attack was later judged to be a war crime at the Tokyo Trials following World War II.
Any American who seeks to understand American foreign policy must learn the lesson that was taught when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor: not all nations follow the rules like America does. When America gives our word that we will do something, we usually do. Today’s adversarial nations like China and Russia consider that to be a weakness. For example, they will gladly sign an environmental deal to get the international attention. However, they do so without ever planning on following through.
Let me make very clear that I am proud to live in a nation where we keep our word and follow the rules. It speaks well of our Judeo-Christian heritage. However, when we make the mistake of assuming other nations will be as honest, we put our own interests and even our national security at risk. Learn the lesson of Pearl Harbor: don’t take adversarial nations’ word at face value.